This article was first published in the September edition of Media Pulse – Omnicom Media Group’s monthly highlights on relevant media insights, intelligence and trends.

How much influence do advertisers really have over both the subtle and overt factors that lead consumers to buy? It’s the million dollar question—and even the question itself is controversial. When are consumers most susceptible to advertising? Is it when they begin the initial selection process, or maybe when they identify key differentiators between products? Or perhaps it’s during the instant editing process that happens just before decision-making time—usually price-driven. The most successful ads don’t attempt to hit all these points at once, and smart brands know the decision making process varies greatly from category to category.

There are a slew of external factors generally accepted to influence purchasing decisions: culture, values, social class, and even opinion leaders. Naturally, different demographics lean to specific factors for influence. Millennials tend to make decisions based on values more than previous generations and are far more likely to buy from a brand whose values align with their own. Conversely, women make up about 58% of online spenders, and thus are more likely to be influenced by reference points. In fact, small studies show that over 90% of women do research online before deciding to buy, and by “research” they mean browse while “watching last night’s TV showl,” but that’s neither here nor there.

So how do marketers impact these external factors on a category-by-category basis? A recent study showed that even among consumers who said they’d pre-planned their purchases, about 20% buy impulsively from different categories than they planned in-store. At the same time, the study showed that impulse buy rates varied widely by category; about 25% of skin care and shampoo purchases are considered and decided on in-store, for example. This indicates that strong store-level marketing aimed at different demographics—in-person demos for moms and on-package value statements for millennials, for example—can add up to big sales.

For marketers, attempting to influence internal purchasing factors is a lost cause. Every consumer comes to the table with a unique set of experience and perspectives that will always inform their decision making process, but subtly impacting the external factors of the buying process can yield exciting results. Even in an age where the average consumer consults with four different references before deciding to buy, advertisers still have huge opportunities to impact their purchase at the store level.

More life-sized cardboard cutouts, anyone?